27 April 2023

Debts that cannot be repaid in full

A friend joked recently that there was a time when friends and relatives would ask ‘aren’t you thinking about being married?’ but now they ask ‘haven’t you thought about migrating?’  Clearly times have changed from relatively bearable to hard and worse. Understandable too.

If things are unbearable, there are two options. One, do your best to make things bearable. If this cannot be done alone, then seek like-minded people, network, build a community, turn idea into ideology. Fight. That’s if ‘this place,’ however you define it, is considered to be of value.

That’s not easy when one’s mind has been and is constantly bombarded with negativity about the country, the culture and history even as it is injected with all kinds of fairy stories about some other place.  

So there’s the second option: leaving. Decide to leave and you can support the decision with countless arguments. In other words, once you’ve convinced yourself about a decision or a course of action, it’s easy to convince the world, especially because even if the world objects, you’ve justified things to yourself.

Nothing wrong with this.

Recently I met a school friend, Esala Hettiwatte. He spoke about these matters.

‘I have told my children, “go wherever you want to go, but remember that there’s no land like this.’

Now someone could argue that it’s a place-bias born of long years of residence. ‘There’s no place like home,’ after all it is not a country-specific assertion.

I get him though. When people ask me why I returned to Sri Lanka (and many have, over the years),  I’ve told them, ‘there are two reasons: first, I am a beneficiary of free education and that’s a debt I cannot every hope to repay in full, and secondly I can’t think of a country more beautiful or a people more enchanting than this.’

It’s not just free education though. Just think. The vast majority of Sri Lankans benefit from free education and free health services including complicated surgeries which would cost a fortune if done in a private hospital. They benefit from all kinds of subsidies. Much of it can be calculated but we don’t add it up to overall income. Someone paid for someone’s education. That beneficiary is not asked to repay that someone. Indeed most beneficiaries aren’t even conscious that these can be seen as debts and that the civilised thing to do is to repay in one form or another.

So, being ignorant or feigning ignorance allows us to absolve ourselves from any guilt. Indeed, no one will say ‘hey dude, pay your debts before you leave!’ I am not saying that either, don’t worry.  One doesn’t have to be resident in a village, a community, a household or country to serve the relevant place or people. And there’s no deadline either. If you do feel obliged to repay, you can do it as you wish, when you wish.

Esala was not talking of any of these things. He feels blessed to have been born here. He feels blessed to live here, despite all the deprivations. I feel the same way.

The beauty needs no description. All you need to have done to love this country is to have traveled. It’s a small island. Easy to cover, so to speak. Easy to discover and rediscover. It’s more than that.

There was a sitcom that was very popular in the USA a few decades ago titled ‘Cheers’. The theme song had a line that was almost an ad: ‘where everybody knows your name.’  Familiarity. That’s what was special and was being marketed.

In Sri Lanka, any conversation of any length has the potential of producing life-long friendships. Talk to a stranger for a few minutes and you’ll probably find that the person is related or knows someone you know or there are places both have been to or things both are fascinated by.  

Maybe it is the size of the country. Maybe it is the culture. Maybe it is just Esala. Maybe just Esala and myself. But maybe there’s some truth in the Victor Ratnayake song, ‘Okkoma rajavaru (all kings)’ where he claims, ‘we are all fathers, we are all mothers, we of the Thun Sinhale are all related.’

Yes, people have issues with ‘Sinhale’ thanks to those extremists who have misread the name and are convinced that it confers exclusive ownership to a particular group identifying itself with a particular language and thanks to those who have different fixations about self and community. Sinhale, though, is a composite of the Yaksha, Naga, Deva and Raksha, the four hela communities. And 'Thun Sinhale' refers to the island’s geography separated into the three provinces Ruhunu, Maya and Pihiti.

That’s an aside.

We are all related. A nation of relatives. We will be there for each other, even those we dislike or consider to be enemies, in moments of triumph and moments of tragedy: we are present at the magula (celebration) and the maranaya (death).

We can never leave. We can never completely pay off the debts we owe. True for me. True for Esala too, probably. But more than that, this country is way too beautiful to leave. Some loves are like that. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

An island which no flood can overwhelm

Who really wrote 'Mother'?

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember

On loving, always

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal

When you turn 80...

It is good to be conscious of nudities 

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday 

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart